Thursday 18 April 2019

Television: Seán Óg, Shergar, Francis, Anthony and other gods of the small screen

Glory days: Seán Óg Ó'hAilpín lifts the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2005 for Cork
Glory days: Seán Óg Ó'hAilpín lifts the Liam McCarthy Cup in 2005 for Cork
Anthony Bourdain

John Boland

If you were looking for even a smidgen of detachment from RTÉ1's new three-part series, The Game: The Story of Hurling, you had clearly come to the wrong place.

"Hurling's a game for the gods and gods play it," we were told at the outset of this week's first instalment, and that set the tone for a promotional exercise that brooked no dissent from its devotional pieties.

This, I suppose, was to be expected from a series that had been made, as the end titles informed us, "with the support of the GAA", but I'm sure I wasn't the only viewer to feel somewhat alienated from the repeated insistence on an "identity" that seemingly only hurling could bestow on the nation and its inhabitants.

A succession of soundbites from the game's great and good told of the "sacred soil" of Croke Park, and of how "nobody owns hurling, hurling just lives", and, of course, about how it's an essential "part of what we are", even though that's not true of myself or many others who live in this country.

Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain

Visually, Gerry Nelson's film was arresting, but its reliance on reverential platitudes made for a bit of a slog, and it really only came to life at the very end when the Fiji-born Seán Óg Ó hAilpín spoke with real feeling about arriving in Cork as a boy and only overcoming his sense of being an outsider when he joined his schoolmates in the playing of hurling - thereby, as he said, on the way to fulfilling "the greatest human need: to be loved and accepted".

This outstanding Cork player was also the subject of this week's An Lá a Rugadh Mé (TG4), in which Harry McGee interviews celebrities who were born on a particular day. Ó hAilpín was born on May 22, 1977, and this led McGee to send him off to Skellig Michael, simply because the first Star Wars was released in 1977 and part of the latest one was filmed on this forbidding rock off the Kerry coast.

He was also required to meet Johnny Giles, just because Giles retired as a player in 1977, but the whole half-hour was as silly as it was arbitrary and Ó hAilpín never got to register as more than a willing, if slightly bemused, participant.

Ransom seekers

In Searching for Shergar (RTÉ1/BBC2), reporter Alison Millar tried to frame the story as a mystery, even though every dog in the street has long been assured that the IRA kidnapped the great racehorse from Ballymany stud in 1983 - a fact confirmed at the end of this film by former IRA intelligence chief Kieran Conway.

Along the way, though, Millar introduced us to Shergar's former vet Stan Cosgrove, who in 2004 had publicly vowed, "I never want to hear about that horse ever again", but who now, after a glass or two of wine, spoke freely to the reporter about the calamities that befell him after he agreed to go along with a botched garda attempt to arrest some ransom seekers.

Lester Piggott and Clare Balding were among the other interviewees in a film that proved to be much more engrossing than I'd expected.

The FIFA Family: A Love Story (RTÉ1) was a highly entertaining Danish film about how Qatar's winning bid for the 2022 World Cup led to disaster for the corrupt Zurich-based football federation.

Star of the film was Mary Lynn Blanks, a former New York-based soap actress who got involved with FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer and thus witnessed many of the shenanigans involving the outfit's sleazy president Sepp Blatter and his bribe-taking colleagues. She was a lively and sardonic presence throughout, but the film's best quote came from an investigative journalist. FIFA, he said, was "like The Sopranos, but with worse people".

In Francis Brennan's Grand Tour South Africa (RTÉ1), the host was again waving his little flag as the group visited the house in Soweto where Nelson Mandela once lived. It's now a museum and everyone looked genuinely awed. Later in the street, two young black guys performed a song and dance act for Francis. They were clearly hoping for some money, but a grinning Francis kept his hand out of his pocket.

However, if you want a sense of South Africa, it's to be found on Netflix, which is currently screening 64 episodes of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. This is a real treasure trove from the charismatic American chef and world traveller, whose suicide at the age of 61 this June in France shocked everyone who admired him. He was a bon viveur with an engaging affability, a bracing forthrightness and a genuine social conscience, and these are all in evidence in this CNN series, filmed between 2013 and 2016.

So far I've randomly watched four of them - Myanmar, South Africa, Sicily and Rome - and have had the vivid sense both of being there and of feeling that I've genuinely learned things that have nothing to do with a tourist's perceptions. Indeed, in the Rome episode, you won't find any of the stock sights, Bourdain's social and cultural interests lying elsewhere

Netflix is also offering 10 episodes from a previous series, Anthony Bourdain: The Layover, on The Travel Channel. These 24-hour stopovers in various cities are more conventionally touristic -his visit to Dublin plugs various bars and restaurants, though it's enlivened by his determination to go on a drinking binge from which he emerges in rag order.

But he disliked the commercial straitjacket imposed on him by The Travel Channel and thus made his move to CNN. That's the series to watch.

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